The People in the Trees

People in the TreesApparently, the way to get me to read something is to write a gushing post about it and then specifically name me in the post as someone who should read it. That’s what Other Jenny did in her post about The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara a few weeks ago, and I put it on hold at the library that day. Before Jenny’s post, I hadn’t heard much about this book, beyond the commentary in this year’s Tournament of Books. Even though all the judges admired the book, something about the discussion made me think it wasn’t my kind of thing—that it was trying too hard to be innovative and edgy. (Maybe I was also annoyed that it knocked my beloved Kate Atkinson out of the competition early on.) But Jenny doesn’t go for that sort of thing, so her recommendation made me look again, and I discovered that my impression was indeed a false impression. This novel, Yanagihara’s debut, is slightly off-center in its form (which offers a nod in the direction of Pale Fire), but it’s also a straightforwardly good story.

The novel begins with a pair of newspaper clippings in which we learn that a prominent immunologist, Dr. Norton Perina, has been charged and convicted of sexual abuse of one or more of his 43 adopted children. Perina was credited with discovering that a group of Micronesian people, the Opa’ivu’eke of the island of Ivu’ivu, had attained unusually long life through consumption of a particular turtle’s meat. Perina conducted research among these people for years, and many of his children were adopted from the Opa’ivu’eke tribe.

Perina’s memoirs, as edited by his research colleague Dr. Ron Kubodera, comprise the rest of the book. Kubodera is a full-on, no-holds-barred Perina partisan, as becomes evident from his effusive preface to the Perina-penned narrative. Kubodera remains a presence in the story through the footnotes, which are sometimes mere citations of sources for additional reading, sometimes additions of background information to help readers understand more about the people of Ivu’ivu, and occasionally commentary on the events Perina describes. Kubodera mostly stays out of Perina’s way, letting him tell his own story in his own way. But his admiration is so over-the-top that he does little to help Perina make his case.

Perina doesn’t help his own case much either. This guy is a piece of work, the kind of guy who when mentioning the biographies written about him will note that his favorite is the evenhanded one that treats him as “something close to godlike.” As the story goes on, delving into his work on Ivu’ivu, it’s possible, every once in a while, to forget what kind of person he is, but the megalomaniac always returns, always justifying himself and condemning others. He has a lot to justify, after all. Much of his work does not hold up to modern standards of scientific and anthropological ethics, and much of it was questionable even in the 1950s, when he first learned of the remarkable longevity among the Opa’ivu’eke. His story draws in questions related to how more powerful cultures relate to less powerful ones and what is gained and lost when different cultures meet. But the story doesn’t stop there.

The fact that Yanagihara wrote this novel as a fictional memoir, rather than a straight-up novel, adds an additional layer of questions to work through. You see, everything we know about Ivu’ivu comes through Perina, as mediated by Kubodera. Before Perina’s research team went to Ivu’ivu, no one knew anything about the people there. One of the researchers on the team disappeared, and another is treated with scorn by Perina, so we don’t know how well Perina’s impressions jibe with what they saw. We can assume a few things by looking a the footnotes Kubodera provides and seeing what others wrote about them. But it’s interesting to me that a few key moments cannot be corroborated. Those moments are central to the way Perina thinks about the Ivu’ivu and the children he later adopts. I’m not sure how of the narrative much Yanagihara means for us to question, but I question a lot.

I’m still working out how I feel about the book’s ending and the way Yanagihara deals with the questions raised in those opening news clippings. I don’t want to say much about this, but up until the last couple of pages, I thought she was making a different choice, and it struck me as a pretty gutsy move, even if it would have infuriated me. But she makes a different choice, and I was initially disappointed. The ending is growing on me as I think about it, even if it’s not quite as bold a stroke as I’d imagined. The book might have felt incomplete with the ending I expected, and this novel feels finished. It’s not tidy, but it’s whole.

Posted in Fiction | 9 Comments

Five Days at Memorial

Five DaysEarly on in Sheri Fink’s account of events at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, we see a doctor helping a hospital employee euthanize a cat. The doctors and nurses and other staff members had brought their pets to Memorial to wait out the storm, as they’d done many times before. These pets were not allowed on rescue boats and aircraft, and leaving them behind to suffer and die seemed cruel. Later in the book, we learn that pets were eventually allowed to be evacuated with their owners. “It was too late for many.” Fink writes. “It wasn’t necessary to euthanize them after all.”

But this book is not about the pets. It’s about the people. And that line continues to haunt me—even more so because it doesn’t just apply to pets. Although stories about exactly what happened vary, multiple patients were given injections that are believed to have hastened their deaths. Were these people euthanized? Why? And was it necessary?

Fink spent six years investigating what happened and following the criminal investigation that followed. The result is an absorbing account of heroism and maddening failures, both large and small. Although she makes no direct accusation, Fink makes a strong case that some of the staff at Memorial would decide it was best to let their sickest patients die comfortably that to subject them to more pain or risk what they believed would be a fatal evacuation attempt (if it could even be attempted).

The first half of the book recounts what happened at Memorial itself. As the power failed and the waters rose, the medical staff and their family members sought ways to keep patients safe, comfortable, and alive. When rescue became possible, they set priorities regarding who should be evacuated first. The building was hot, and the toilets didn’t work. It was a nightmare situation. With hindsight and an outsider’s view, it’s possible to see where operations broke down, where communication failed, and where judgment slipped. The staff at Memorial were making life-and-death decisions, but they were themselves tired and scared, and many did not have complete and accurate information.

Fink interviewed many of the people who were there, and their stories are consistent in some areas and inconsistent in others. Memory being fallible, it’s hard to know who’s correct, and it’s certainly possible that some were hiding the truth from Fink—or from themselves. What is clear is that people made mistakes. But many of those mistakes are understandable. For example, at one point, helicopter pilots offered to continue evacuating patients throughout the night. This offer was declined because the staff members responsible for bringing patients to the helipad needed rest, and the pathway to the helipad was poorly lit and dangerous. Was the risk of falling greater than the risk of staying another night?

The triaging of patients was similar. In general, the healthiest patients were evacuated first. They were, it was believed, better able to survive being moved and then to cope with whatever conditions they would find at the evacuation site. (Some evacuees were left at a highway cloverleaf to await transit, so this was no small concern.) Yet this meant that patients who needed oxygen to breathe were left at a hospital with no electricity.

For me, one of the most alarming aspects of the story was what happened to the patients and staff of LifeCare, a smaller hospital housed within Memorial but run separately. For much of the book, they seemed to be entirely off the radar of the Memorial staff—an afterthought. Few of their patients got out, and large doses of morphine were found in many of their bodies.

The second half of the book focuses on the investigation into what happened at Memorial. One doctor in particular, Anna Pou, faces the greatest scrutiny. Witnesses identified her and two nurses as the ones who administered morphine to the remaining Memorial and LifeCare patients. This half was less engaging overall than the first half, but Fink drops some significant revelations in this half of the book. For example, investigators couldn’t figure out why hospital staff took one of the more difficult routes to the helipad. And why didn’t they bring patients to the adjacent cancer center, which had power? Questions are raised about how close to death some of these patients actually were. One man, it seems, was left because he was so large, and no one could figure out how to transport him. Some patients were alert and responsive the day before they died. Their family members, who were told to evacuate without them, couldn’t figure out what happened to cause them to take such a turn in just one day.

Fink does not place blame in one place or on one person. She may have her own opinions, but she doesn’t share them. I sensed some frustration with statements Pou has made in talks she’s given about medical care during disasters. Overall, though, this book shows how impossible it is to place blame on one person. Even if Pou did intend to give lethal doses to these patients, what led her to that decision? What false information did she have, and what true information did she lack? How much had stress and fear skewed her judgment? Here’s where placing blame gets tricky.

This book is lengthy—both exhausting and exhaustive—but if you can bear to stay with the story, it’s riveting. Fink does well at letting her subjects speak for themselves and sorting through the various voices, even as they contradict one another, and allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. I have many thoughts after reading this, but no conclusion to draw, other than that I hope never to have to know what choice I’d make in the face of this kind of disaster.

Posted in Nonfiction | 15 Comments

On Giving Up on Night Film After Only 50 Pages

Night FilmI know better than to give in to literary hype, but I also know better than to dismiss hyped books. If it sounds like my kind of thing, I’ll give it a try, and Night Film by Marisha Pessl sounded like my kind of thing. Set against a backdrop of creepy films and filled with excerpts of “real life” online news stories and hard-copy police reports and other documents, this tale of a reclusive filmmaker, his recently deceased daughter, and the disgraced journalist who gets drawn into the story sounds like exactly my kind of thing.

But then there’s the writing. Almost every review I’ve seen, positive or negative, complained about the writing–or at the very least about Pessl’s habit of sprinkling italics seemingly randomly throughout the narrative so that we would know what’s important or hear the emphasis in the narrator’s voice. But that’s not the only problem. The narrator, journalist Scott McGrath, also peppers his writing with dumb metaphors and belabored descriptions.

Here are a few examples, all from the first 50 pages.

[On Scott's daughter's nanny] Her name was Jeannie, but no sane man would ever dream of her.

[On Scott's daughter] She seemed to already know what took me forty-three years to figure out, that even though adults were tall, what we knew about anything, including ourselves, was small. The jig had been up since she was about three. And like an innocent convict who’d simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, Sam was resigned to patiently serve out her sentence (childhood) with her inept wardens (Cynthia and me) until she was on parole.

[During a meeting with a police source] Sharon continued to watch me—or perhaps the right word was investigate, because her brown eyes were slowly moving over my face, probably in the same methodical grid pattern she used with a widespread search party.

[On a film professor antagonist] As livid as he was, it was impossible for Beckman to be physically intimidating. He was wearing gray dress slacks too short in the leg and round gold eyeglasses, behind which his small, kind eyes blinked like a chipmunk’s. He also had a gung-ho hairline. It couldn’t wait to get started, beginning an overeager two inches above his eyebrows. His right cheek was badly swollen as if stuffed with cotton balls.

In a generous moment, I thought Pessl was going for a hard-boiled noir-ish style, and maybe she was, but it doesn’t work. Not for this character in this time and place. Shouldn’t a journalist in the internet era be all about lean prose? Usually, I don’t expect that much of the prose in crime fiction. If I don’t notice it (and I usually don’t), I’m happy. If I notice that it’s great, I’m thrilled. If I notice that it’s terrible, it’s bad news because that draws me out of the story, and when the story is the best thing about a book, I need to be kept inside it.

Many readers have been fascinated by the facsimiles of actual documents that Pessl uses throughout the book. I love this kind of thing, so I was pretty excited about that, but it’s not that innovative. Lots of books include news stories that comment on and build the plot. The main distinction here is that Pessl uses so many of them and that they’re not just run in the text but presented as screen shots or copies of the actual documents. It makes the fictional filmmaker, his family, and his fans feel like part of the real world because we see the “real-world” response to them. But it doesn’t do enough to make up for the ridiculousness of the main character’s voice.

The first 50 pages of this book kept reminding me of other things I liked better.  And the underground film scene made me think of Laurie King’s deliciously dark The Bones of Paris. The prologue feels like a tribute to the film Don’t Look Know, based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier. I wondered why I wasn’t reading Daphne du Maurier. If I’m thinking I’d rather be reading something else as I roll my eyes at the book in my hand, it’s time to put that book down.

It’s unusual for me to write about books I don’t finish these days. And it’s highly unusual for me to write about books that I barely start. But I’ve seen so much praise for this book, often from people whose opinion I respect and tend to agree with. With a little digging, I was able to come up with a handful of negative reviews, but only a handful, and most of those focused on the plot and its (lack of) resolution. I got to wondering if I’m alone in my extreme irritation with the writing. Lots of reviews mentioned not loving the writing, but most seemed to overlook it because the plot was so entertaining. Are there others out there who started and couldn’t deal with the writing and gave up? Is it just me? How bad does bad writing have to be before it’s not worth the bother? When it comes to that, how do you define bad writing? I thought this was pretty bad, but clearly not everyone does. And I’ve been completely unbothered by writing others thought was atrocious. I only know I didn’t like this and didn’t want to spend any more time on it.

Posted in Abandoned, Contemporary, Fiction, Mysteries | 18 Comments

Paradise of the Blind

Paradise of the Blind (199x300)The cover of this 1988 novel by Duong Thu Huong states that it is the first novel from Vietnam to be published in the U.S. And for an American reader like me, who mostly knows Vietnam from movies about the war, it reveals something of what life was like for the people who never saw an American soldier, who didn’t choose one side or the other, and who were left to deal with the aftereffects of a fight that wasn’t theirs but became theirs by association. It’s the story of the women.

The story actually begins in Russia, where a young woman employed as a factory worker receives a telegram that her uncle is sickness. Just getting over an illness herself, the woman, Hang, doesn’t want to go, but she does, out of loyalty to her mother, who always said these words when they faced misfortune:

“To live with dignity, the important thing is never to despair. You give up once, and everything gives way. They say ginger root becomes stringy, but pungent with age. Unhappiness forges a woman, makes her selfless, compassionate.”

On her way to Moscow, where her uncle Chinh lives, Hang looks back at her life, wrestling with the hatred she feels toward her uncle. Hang was born after the war, after her uncle’s work for the Communist Party forced her parents apart. Hang’s father, Ton, was from the land-owning class who were deemed exploiters, and Hang’s mother, Que, is forbidden to see him. Ton cannot cope with the punishment forced upon landowning families, and he flees the village. Que, miserable in her life without Ton, soon goes to Hanoi to make a life for herself. It’s a small, poor life, peddling food, but she scrimps and saves and makes enough to live on. That’s what the women in this book do. They work. They find their strength through working. They give their love through working.

Another woman who works is Hang’s paternal aunt, Tam. She was one of many landowners who was punished for past wrongs during the reforms after the war. (Those wrongs mostly involved employing peasants to work the land. Tam’s family wasn’t even particularly rich, but she had to face humiliation for not being a peasant.) Tam carries the weight of her family during this time, always retaining her dignity. Later, after Special Section for the Rectification of Errors rescinds some of the reforms, Tam gets her family’s property back, and she builds on it and earns money from it and becomes wealthy. She uses her wealth to shower Hang, the one family member she has left, with gifts of food and jewelry.

Both Tam and Que place great value on family and on the giving of gifts, especially food. As Tam earns money to give Hang gifts, so Que earns money to give gifts to her brother and his family, most especially his two sons. Que can hardly afford to feed herself and Hang, but still she strives to keep Chinh’s children fed, even though the gifts themselves are dangerous. Food is a sort of currency in the novel, with the women giving and receiving it as a way of creating relationships and cementing bonds. You can watch characters’ loyalties and status shift according to their relationships that center on food. Meals and food gifts are described in great detail. When the characters, give and receive food, they show which relationships matter—or they make distant relationships matter. Late in the book, one character, a man in this case, uses food to give himself a role in his community. Being able to make spring rolls means he’s useful and not just an object of contempt.

The novel was translated into English by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson. McPherson’s Translator’s Note at the beginning offers some helpful historical context. I wish I’d read it before I read the novel itself, because I wasn’t sure I followed all the political shifts correctly. Huong seems to write for an audience that knows the history, although the book was eventually banned in Vietnam. (I see now that McPherson also refers to food as currency, an idea I thought was my own, but might have seeped into my brain after reading her notes without my consciously realizing it.) It was an interesting look at a time and place I know little about. It didn’t blow me away, but I liked it.

Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

TBR Dare: Finis

tbr-dareI’ve written before about my fear that if I’m not careful my TBR pile will someday take over my small house. And although I’m usually careful about my book-buying and tend to get rid of books I don’t adore after I read them, now and then I’ll go on a book-buying bender that makes it impossible to keep my physical TBR pile from expanding beyond the bookcase I’ve devoted to my unread books. I buy books I want to read, usually because I’ve found a ridiculously good deal at a library and charity sale, and then I let them sit… and sit. My current rule (as in vague sort of guideline with exceptions) is that any book I’ve left unread for longer than four years goes in my library donation bag. But I continue to acquire books as quickly as I read them, and my love of the library always puts me in danger of acquiring more quickly than I read.

So every year, I look forward to James’s TBR Dare as a way of forcing me to focus on those books I own but haven’t read. The idea is to read only books from your TBR pile from January 1 until April 1. Not a long time, but long enough to make a dent. I’ve participated all four years, but I believe I only made it to the end the very first year. Something always called to me more loudly than the TBR Dare did. And even in the year when I did make it to April 1, I read a lot of e-galleys and library books that I picked before the dare began. That’s officially within the loose parameters of the dare, but it kind of defeats the purpose.

This year, I did better… sort of. I’ve stopped taking review copies or visiting Netgalley, so there were none of those to read, and I made a point of not going to the library in the last half of December. So I had nothing but that bookcase of books to pull from. OK, actually, I had that bookcase of book and a few hundred books on my e-reader, plus a few books family members lent me during the holidays. But the point for me is keeping the physical book pile at bay, so I tried to forget about those.

By April 1, I had managed to read nothing but books from my TBR, most of them physical books on that overflowing bookcase. I did read one of the borrowed books, but it was the second in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle series, and after reading the first at Christmas, I couldn’t not read the second right away. And I had a couple of e-books and a reread for book group. Plus another reread because Jenny and I are rereading Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles together And Jenny assigned me No Name to read this year, and it was already on my e-reader, so it counts, even if reading it was not helpful in TBR culling. I got a little shaky by mid-March and had to visit the library, but the books I checked out weren’t due until April, and having them was enough to quell my craving for something different.

DSC_0002With those semi-exceptions out of the way, I ended up reading 12 books from my TBR bookcase, which got the bookcase almost back to a state in which all the books are neatly lined up, with none stacked on top. In actuality, I have to keep a couple of books I plan to read very soon off the shelf for that to work, but it’s still of where I want it to be. There are 168 unread books in the house right now. I would have liked to have made a bigger dent in the bookcase collection, but my reading has been slower than usual this year. I blame Twin Peaks, Being Human, and Call the Midwife for that. And comic books, which I decided not to count because making your own rules is perfectly acceptable on the TBR Dare.

Yesterday, I went to the library for just the second time this year and checked out Night Film by Marisha Pessl and Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. The first I had on hold, and the other called to me from the new books shelf by the checkout. I like checking out library books, even if I don’t read them. Right now, I’m actually reading a book from my TBR pile, Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huang. Maybe I’ll try to alternate TBR and library books for the rest of the year. I love the TBR Dare for making me really look at the books I have on hand, but I also love following my whims at the library and bookstore.

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Fun Home and Are You My Mother?

FunhomecoverIn these two graphic memoirs, Alison Bechdel chronicles her ambivalent love for each of her parents. The first, Fun Home, deals with her father, who died, possibly by suicide, when Bechdel was in college, not long after she came out as a lesbian and subsequently learned that her father had had numerous affairs with men, including some of his students.

Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and funeral director–the titular “fun home” is the funeral home that was his family’s business. At home, he was often a sinister presence, throwing plates when he got angry; but he could also be attentive, lavishing his care and concern on both the house and the children–although Bechdel wonders how much his care was about creating the perfect image of a perfect home and perfect family.

FunHomepageAs Bechdel tells her father’s story, she must of course tell much of her own. She weaves back and forth in time, addressing aspects of her father’s life and examining how they link to her own experiences. She writes of how she discovered her own sexuality and muses on how her father might have handled his same-sex attraction differently if he’d been born in a different time. If he had been able to live openly as a gay man, however, Alison herself might never have been born. And if he’d lived longer, he might have come up against the AIDs crisis, which began soon after his death. Alison recounts these difficult feelings with detachment, noting them and moving on, but her ambivalent love is always there. She can see the ways they are the same, flip sides of each other, the same song in a different key.

Bechdel uses literature to tie her and her father’s stories together, referring to books they both read, books that made her think of him, and books she encountered at key moments in her life. In the years just before his death, literature drew them closer together. But death, always a presence at the fun home, took him away just as they were beginning to be open with each other.

This book is a fantastic example of how graphic memoir can be complex and multilayered. These aren’t just pictures with a story. It’s all woven together, sometimes with the pictures revealing feelings words can’t express without seeming trite or out of character for a family who are not always free with their feelings. It also gets at how difficult family love can be, while still being love.

are-you-my-motherBechdel’s follow-up memoir, Are You My Mother? is equally ambitious, and in some respects more difficult. Her relationship with her mother is still in progress, a fact that comes up many times during the book as she talks with her mother about it. Bechdel’s mother was a constant presence, always making sure the children got what they needed and dealing with her husband’s rages, but she was not warm. This memoir depicts her both sad and cold, withdrawn into herself, exhibiting strong feeling only when she appeared on the stage. It is, on the whole, a sympathetic rendering, although Bechdel cannot deny that she longed for more affection from her mother, even if she didn’t know what she longed for.

AreYouMyMotherpageA great deal of the book is given over to Bechdel’s time in therapy and her interest in psychoanalysis, particularly the work of Donald Winnicott. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child also play key roles. Bechdel also shares several of her dreams, all of which are laden with symbolism. (I remember my own dreams but not with this level of detail. And they certainly seem meaningless most of the time. I did dream up a great Ruth Rendell–esque crime novel a few weeks ago, and I woke up determined to remember it. I now remember nothing about it and suspect the waking-up part was actually something I dreamed and the novel idea was either nonexistent or terrible.)

I appreciated the way Bechdel is able to balance her tenderness toward her mother and her need to be honest, especially knowing that her mother will read the memoir—that she, in fact, reads pieces of it as it is in development. But the references to what Bechdel was learning from her reading of Winnicott, Miller, and Freud were less effective to me than the literary overlay in the previous book. The material in these readings is too dense and technical to sit alongside Bechdel’s personal narrative. Although the excerpts from their writings are not difficult to understand, I often wanted more context for their arguments and a clearer connection to why Bechdel saw herself in these readings. I couldn’t generate much interest in Winnicott and company because I felt the descriptions and excerpts from their writing distracted from the more interesting story of Bechdel and her mother. The book was a lot of talk about the relationship—and even more about parent-child relationships in general—and not a lot of being in the relationship. The moments when the two interact are some of the best in the book.

Although Are You My Mother? was not nearly as good as Fun Home, I am glad to have read it. I had wondered how Bechdel’s family felt about her earlier memoir, and there’s some good conversation about that, including a great phone conversation with Bechdel’s mother about the ruthlessness of the memoir writer. I wonder if reading it so close on the heels of her much stronger first memoir enhanced or detracted from my reading of the second, and I can’t quite decide. I was glad to have the earlier story so fresh in my memory, but I think I was better able to see where the second story fell short having so recently finished the first.

Posted in Graphic Novels / Comics, Memoir, Nonfiction | 8 Comments

Quicksand and Passing

LarsenThese two novellas by Nella Larsen are concerned with questions of identity. How do we find our identity? How does society inform our identity? And how do we break free when we don’t care for society’s definitions? In particular, the novels focus on the world of African American women in 1920s America and the constraints that they face. The main character of one novella pushes against every limitation set before her, and the other has followed the obvious and clear path, only to find herself fascinated and repelled by one who made a different choice.

Helga, the main character in Quicksand, is a biracial schoolteacher from Chicago, now working at Naxos, a highly regarded school for black Southerners. She balks at the rules and expectations of Southern society and decides to return to Chicago, where she receives no help from her white relatives and encounters difficulty finding a job. Eventually, she finds work that leads her to New York, where she decides to stay until she comes to the conclusion that she will be happiest living with her dead mother’s relatives in Denmark. And so on. She craves change more than anything:

She began to make plans and to dream delightful dreams of change, of life somewhere else. Some place where at last she would be permanently satisfied. Her anticipatory thoughts waltzed and eddied about to the sweet silent music of change. With rapture almost, she let herself drop into the blissful sensation of visualizing herself in different, strange places, among approving and admiring people, where she would be appreciated, and understood.

Helga’s discontentment could perhaps be attributed to the fact that she is biracial and thus cannot quite fit in anywhere. Her race and her sex certainly have an effect on the choices available to her, but the need for change seems to be part of her personality—it’s in her soul somehow. As a black woman, she is shut out from some places and treated as a novelty in others, but she is able to find work and friends. Her hunger for change is inside of her, and the constant shuttling from one life to another becomes in itself a sort of monotony (and sometimes tiresome reading). Helga never changes or grows; she just moves on. In the end, she reaches a dead-end, having chosen a life that leaves her a victim of her own body, the one part of her life she cannot escape.

It’s interesting to me that she makes no attempt to “pass” for white, a choice that’s central to Larsen’s 1929 novella, Passing. The main character in this novella, Irene, has done what was expected of her. She got educated, married a doctor, and became a central figure in Harlem society. Her world is shaken when she runs into a childhood friend, Clare, who, as it turns out, shed her black identity not long after her father died and she went to live with two white aunts. Her husband, Jack, has no idea that Clare is of mixed race, and Clare plays along when he jokingly calls her “nig” in reference to her darkening skin. Irene, who is light enough to pass for white in front of Jack, witnesses the incident and is horrified that Clare has married someone so openly racist.

Irene vows not to let Clare back into her life, but she can’t stop thinking about her. Clare wants desperately to be among her own people, so Irene helps her gain a foothold in Harlem society. Throughout this time, she seems fascinated and appalled by Clare, whose freedom and joie de vivre seem to draw everyone’s attention, even though they know little about her. Clare, shows no signs of feeling oppressed by society’s expectations. She does what she pleases, even knowing the consequences could be dreadful.

Irene sees why such a life—and such a person—would be appealing, but it’s a life she would never choose for herself. Or would she? Does her growing anger at Clare hint at desires she herself has? What would she choose if she didn’t care about the consequences? Irene has built what looks to be a perfect life, and Clare’s existence seems to threaten it on multiple levels. And so Irene’s resentment rises.

Nella Larsen only wrote these two short novels and several short stories, but these two books cemented her reputation as a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. They’re fascinating glimpses into their particular time and place, but the questions they ask, which at first glance seem so specific to that time and place, are questions that probably haunt just about everyone. Who am I? Who could I be? Who could I have been? Big questions for a pair of small novels that aren’t so small after all.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 8 Comments

A Jesuit Off-Broadway

Jesuit off broadwayThose who know me well will probably know right away why this book appealed to me. It’s Jesuits. It’s theatre. How could I not want to read it? What’s more, it’s by James Martin, whose work I’ve previously enjoyed. So of course I had to get this book. But, as usual, I got the book and then let it languish on my shelf for years. It was only after I read Fr. Martin’s remembrances of Philip Seymour Hoffman last month that I realized that this book also featured my favorite actor.

Hoffman was the director of the first theatrical production of Stephen Adly Giurgis’s play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Martin served as the play’s theological consultant, having been brought on board by Giurgis, who was still in the process of writing the play as rehearsals began, and the actor Sam Rockwell, who played the title role. Most of his work consisted of answering questions about Jesus, Judas, and other biblical figures and about how theologians have thought about their actions.

The play focused on a question that had haunted Giurgis since his childhood—the question of whether Christ’s forgiveness extended far enough to include the very man who betrayed him to his death. As a third grader in a Catholic school, he was horrified at the idea that a loving God would send anyone to hell, even Judas. Martin notes that Giurgis’s questions weren’t new:

The third grader had stumbled upon a theological conundrum that has challenged theologians, philosophers, and saints for centuries. Doesn’t God, who is kind and merciful, as the psalms say, forgive every sin? How could a merciful God create hell? In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus of Nazareth repeatedly forgives sins, but he also tells his followers that they will be judged at the end of time, with the “sheep” being separated from the “goats.” How does one reconcile justice with mercy? Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the nineteenth-century French Carmelite nun, solved this dilemma for herself by saying that she believed in hell but also believed it was empty. How could anyone in heaven, wondered Thérèse, be happy if there were still souls suffering in hell? (Tertullian, one of the most influential early Christian writers, disagreed—which is putting things mildly. He predicted that one of the chief joys of heaven would be thinking about the torments of the sinners in hell.)

Ugh. Gotta say I prefer Thérèse‘s take over Tertullian’s.

So Giurgis’s Judas tackled some tough questions, and Martin found that the playwright, actors, and creative team wanted to think carefully about the possible answers. And in this book, he walks us, his readers, through his experience of working through these questions with them. So as they learn about the authorship of the gospels and possible motivations of Judas and theological questions about suicide, so do we. And Martin comes to respect love and the people of the theatre and the work they do.

Martin’s writing is, as always, engaging and accessible. He covers a wide range of questions about the gospels and Judas, which means he doesn’t necessarily go into great depth, but I was impressed at how much information he packed into this short book and how many different sides of these questions he was able to address. (The passage above about hell is a good example of his ability to quickly sum up a complex issue.) Sometimes he shares his own view; sometimes he doesn’t. But his particular view is irrelevant to the story of the community built around these questions.

I was part of my high school’s theatre group, and I did a little community theatre years ago, and I know from that experience that working together on a play can be intense. You have to trust others to take their work seriously and to be there for you if you flub a line. And putting yourself through the emotions your characters feel can be exhausting, and I’m sure it’s especially so for a play like Judas, which required the actors to think deeply about questions of God and faith in order to understand their characters. I enjoyed being able to get a glimpse of what it was like to be part of that community. Martin himself became close to many of the cast members, praying for and with them. He became invested in the production itself, bringing friends and fretting over their reactions. Theatre is intoxicating—I can see why he couldn’t help but become enmeshed in that world.

For me, this was a great book simply for the story it tells. I see lots of play, many of them taking on serious questions and making me think. But it’s unusual for me to come across a play that wrestles with faith the way Judas does. After reading about it, I hope for an opportunity to see it.

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The Way We Live Now (part 2)

way we live nowMy first post on The Way We Live Now was about possessions, in the broadest possible sense. Trollope examines, and satirizes, the way we live now (and indeed the way we live now is not very different) as a time of getting whatever we may on the best possible terms: money, marriage, an undeserved reputation, a seat in Parliament.

But how do his characters get these possessions? They must, usually, either talk or write their way into them; no one is permitted merely to sit still and let the good things roll in. There is a flood of both conversation and paper in The Way We Live Now, and the tension between the value of the spoken and the written word is woven into the fabric of the book.

I mentioned in my last post that the novel begins with Lady Carbury, who lives by her (rather mediocre) pen. As the book opens, she is writing to three newspapermen to ask for favorable reviews of her latest book, Criminal Queens. Her second letter reaches Mr. Booker:

He was an adept at this sort of work, and knew well how to review such a book as Lady Carbury’s ‘Criminal Queens,’ without bestowing much trouble on the reading. He could almost do it without cutting the book, so that its value for purposes of after sale might not be injured.

Lady Carbury knows that if she could speak to these men in person, and act just a little seductively, she could have a better effect — but her letters must do, and in the event, only one newspaper, whose editor is a personal friend, carries a kind review of her book. The foreshadowing of the effect that newspapers have on public opinion, and the fallibility of their editors, is the strong impression here. (I say nothing of book bloggers, who are the very model of integrity.)

Soon, however, Augustus Melmotte blusters his way into the story. His very name (Melmotte=mal mot=bad word) implies that the narratives he offers, about his past, about his family, about his railway and his wealth, are not to be trusted; his crimes are crimes of communication. All Melmotte’s words are bad — he breaks promises, forges signatures, and curses his daughter. But he is much more convincing with his written word than verbally. Floods of paper come forth from his railway concern: documents, shares, scrip, private letters, telegrams, advertisements, brochures:

It was clearly his idea that fortunes were to be made out of the concern before a spadeful of earth had been moved. If brilliantly printed programmes might avail anything, with gorgeous maps, and beautiful little pictures of trains running into tunnels beneath snowy mountains and coming out of them on the margin of sunlit lakes, Mr. Fisker had certainly done much.

All of London knows by these signs that Melmotte is the richest man in England. But when he speaks, there comes a flicker of doubt:

He stood with his hands on the table and with his face turned to his plate blurted out his assurance that the floating of this railway company would be one of the greatest and most successful commercial operations ever conducted on either side of the Atlantic. It was a great thing. –a very great thing; — he had no hesitation in saying it was one of the greatest things out. He didn’t believe a greater thing had ever come out. He was happy to give his humble assistance to the furtherance of so great a thing. — and so on… He was not eloquent.

This tension that Trollope creates between the written word, which used to guarantee accountability but no longer does, and the spoken word, which is now more telling, is found in other characters and plot lines as well. Signatures become suspect: when the question comes up of whether Dolly Longestaffe signed the title-deeds, everyone assumes they’ve gotten him to sign something when he was drunk (though in fact this would not make the signature less legally binding.) This forgery is made easier by the fact that his “signature is never very plain.” The letter that Felix Carbury writes to Marie Melmotte at her father’s dictation is also problematic; when she points out that it is his handwriting, he says, “Of course it was. I copied just what he put down.” Carbury and his friends back their gambling debts with “notes” that eventually mean nothing, because they have no way to repay them; their signatures are as worthless as the paper they’re written on.

On the other hand, face-to-face communication is privileged. Honest John Crumb cannot write letters; he relies on speech (though he’s not too smooth with that, either, which Ruby Ruggles finds off-putting.) When Felix Carbury is humiliated and exposed, he remains completely silent, unable to talk even to his mother. Georgiana Longestaffe is able to confess her engagement to Brehgehrt in a letter to her mother, but face-to-face with her father, she can’t keep up the charade. For concerns of love and fidelity, speech is the old-fashioned mode of communication to rely on, and at the end of the book, Roger Carbury — the model of honesty and truly gentlemanly behavior — does not trust a letter; he goes to London to see Lady Carbury and Hetta. “I could not write an answer, and so I came.”

When Trollope was writing, the power and status of the printed word, and the way information could circulate, was changing: the railway, the post office, the telegram, novels, newspapers. This book examines that power of information and truth. Talk about the way we live now.

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The Way We Live Now (part 1)

way we live nowIf I told you I’d just read a brawling, sprawling, money-grubbing, dog-eat-dog indictment of society’s financial and moral systems, what would you think I was talking about? If you said, “Something by Christopher Reich or Scott Turow,” you’re in the wrong book discussion group today. If you said, “I can’t guess, is it something by Wharton or Dickens’s Bleak House or Trollope’s The Way We Live Now?” then pull up a chair, because we’re about to get into it.

Trollope does this thing in a lot of his novels where he uses his plots and characters to look at all sides of a certain issue, holding it up in the light like one of his stolen Eustace diamonds, letting all the facets sparkle. In He Knew He Was Right, it’s marriage; in Framley Parsonage, it’s a race between pride, money, and love, fairly equally matched. In an enormous and complex book like The Way We Live Now, it would be impossible to trace every important theme, but the two that stood out to me on this first reading are the difference in value between the written and the spoken word, and the huge, crude, human battleground over possessions.

The novel opens with Lady Carbury, who, despite her title, has very little left in the way of possessions. She is an impoverished widow whose utterly feckless son Felix has gambled and otherwise thrown away all his inheritance and all his mother and sister Hetta have to live on. Lady Carbury is a shallow woman, but a determined one, and she is out for the one possession that can still make her some money: a literary reputation — and whether it is well-or ill-gotten, she does not care at all.

She used her beauty not only to  increase her influence—as is natural to women who are well-favoured—but also with a well-considered calculation that she could obtain material assistance in the procuring of bread and cheese, which was very necessary to her, by a prudent adaptation to her purposes of the good things with which providence had endowed her. She did not fall in love, she did not wilfully flirt, she did not commit herself; but she smiled and whispered, and made confidences, and looked out of her own eyes into men’s eyes as though there might be some mysterious bond between her and them—if only mysterious circumstances would permit it. But the end of all was to induce some one to do something which would cause a publisher to give her good payment for indifferent writing, or an editor to be lenient when, upon the merits of the case, he should have been severe.

This gentle satire sets the tone for characters who take this same approach toward their possessions — from money, to estates both entailed and not entailed, to gambling debts and IOUs, to bank accounts and gems, to nonexistent railway stocks and shares that will ruin hundreds of lives, to reputations that carry more weight than Lady Carbury’s. All the characters, to one degree or another, want good payment for what is indifferent, or want leniency when someone else ought to be severe; they want the most possessions on the best possible terms.

Some very obvious examples of this sort of behavior are easy to find. Augustus Melmotte (whose story soon supersedes Lady Carbury’s, and overshadows most of the book) is a man of vast, impossible wealth, concerned only with getting more wealth. It becomes clear fairly soon, however, that his enormous home, his lavish soirées (one ten-thousand-pound party for the Emperor of China, for instance, is the epitome of hollow grandeur), and his vulgar ostentation are built on nothing and worse than nothing: on disgrace and fraud. The same is true, on a far smaller scale, on Felix Carbury and his friends, who write each other “notes” for their gambling debts, and have no hope of ever repaying them. They gain certain possessions — the life of a young gentleman of a certain sort — and lose any sort of honor.

But there are subtler examples as well. Marie Melmotte is at first a possession of her father’s, used as a pawn to be married to the highest bidder. In exchange for her dowry, Augustus Melmotte will gain a title in the family, and entrance to noble families, and Marie, who has submitted to her tyrannical father all her life, goes along with the plan. But when she falls in love with the worthless Felix, she decides to take her own worth — both personal and financial — as a possession, and to use it to her own advantage. Her disappointment when she discovers she is still only a pawn, though one in her own hands, is heartbreaking. Georgiana Longestaffe is another example of this sort of possession. She has been taught all her life to see herself as a piece of goods on the marriage market; when her father’s financial circumstances put her (as it were) in a back room of the market, she will do anything in her power to beg, borrow, or steal her way back into the front window. When Georgiana is pushing hard to stay with her unwilling hostess, Lady Monogram, we watch the bickering and selfish jabs, and we remember:

Each lady was disposed to get as much and to give as little as possible. — in which desire the ladies carried out the ordinary practice of all parties to a bargain.

Whether their bargaining is based on anything more real than Augustus Melmotte’s railway scheme, Trollope leaves his readers to imagine.

Do possessions ever make anyone truly happy in this novel? There’s one John Crumb who is arguably made very happy by finally taking possession of the girl he’s been determinedly pursuing during the entire novel. But he’s the exception rather than the rule. Trollope follows, in fascination, dozens of characters who seek to get on any terms possible — sometimes solid and honorable, sometimes fraudulent, dishonorable, disgraceful, maddening — and when they get what they’ve sought, it runs like water through their fingers.

Next time, I’ll talk about the way this book examines the written and the spoken word, and how it values each. What a novel!

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